This month we have been reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead* us, and start your own mama leadership book group as a way to connect with your village and gain strength from sharing with and learning from your peers. This month, Kristin Blume shares her perspectives on the book.
“You must watch Brené Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and leadership” This was sage and timely advice from a mentor soon after my challenging return to work after maternity leave with my second child. I was adjusting into a work environment that treated a part-time woman as someone who should quietly sit in the corner and put her ambition on hold.
I was fascinated by Brené Brown, an analytical researcher and writer, and a self-confessed Type A personality who liked order and measuring things. She talked about the discomfort of finding that in order to become more wholehearted, you have to deal with your vulnerability, shame and other uncomfortable feelings. At the time I felt raw and vulnerable going back into a less than supportive role at work, and was grappling with a difficult emotional journey in the first 12 months of my son’s life. Brené Brown’s book opened my eyes to looking at how I had changed as a mother of two, and what I wanted to do as a mum and an ambitious worker. In fact, her approach helped me find the courage to join Summer and the Lead Mama Lead team, and find my ambition again.
Re-visiting Brené’s two TED talks recently as I read her book, Daring Greatly*, I was struck again by her courage to tell her personal stories, and how she uses these illustrate how overcoming shame and embracing vulnerability are critical to living a wholehearted life.
At the beginning of the book Daring Greatly, the author shares the origins of the book title, from a very powerful passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech in 1910. The speech is worth reflecting on here:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The idea of not even being in the arena is familiar to the many women who return to work, and when confronted by a structure that doesn’t support their ambition while allowing them flexibility with their families, find themselves on the “mummy track”. And it was my own story too (though I got out of there).
Motherhood, gender norms, and shame
Shame – and some strategies to help us overcome it – is a big theme of Daring Greatly. Brent writes that motherhood is one of the main sources of shame for women. Mama guilt because you work too many hours? Your kids are eating pasta and peas for dinner again? Working too much = what kind of mother is she? Not in the structured workforce = what sort of example is she setting for her kids? We talk about this all the time at Lead Mama Lead – that as a society, we don’t value caring as a “real job”, and for many women, we are damned if we work (for money), damned if we don’t.
What a woman should be
As Brené explains, a major driver of this shame is the societal expectations of what a women is: that we will always be (and look) perfect, and that we will make it all look easy. A 2005 US study showed that the main things we expect of a woman are:
- being nice
- looking after your appearance, including being (or trying to be) thin
- being modest about your talents
- caring for kids
- staying in a single committed relationship.
If these are society’s expectations, and we internalise them, how could we possibly live up to this ideal women and perfect mother?! It’s a good thing that Brené goes on to give us some ideas about how to move past these (see below).
What a man should be
The main male norms in the US, based on separate research in 2003 by the same team, included:
- emotional control (“don’t be weak”)
- power over women
- pursuit of status.
Wow. In order to pursue our mama leadership goals, we have talked a lot about working alongside our partners and supportive men to change systems and structures that hold women – particularly mothers – back from achieving their full potential. It was a lightening bolt for me reading Brené’s research and stories about the immense pressure men feel too, and that this can stop them stepping up and helping us drop the ball. One of her conclusions from years of research is that men feel like the pressure to conform to these norms is coming as much from women (their wives, kids, colleagues) as it is from other men.
I’m pondering this now as it applies to my parenting of a boy and a girl, and my expectations of myself and my partner.
How we all avoid vulnerability
Brené writes about some of the mechanisms we use to avoid confronting our feelings of shame, and being truly vulnerable. Unless we are incapable of feelings, she says that we have all used one or likely more of these tactics at some point to avoid the hard work of working through big feelings.
You know that feeling when something great happens, but the little voice in your head finds a way to stop your happiness in the moment? You got a promotion, finally, but instead of celebrating, your fearful brain starts thinking about how much harder you’ll have to work and worrying about your new colleagues. This is foreboding joy. To get through this and dare greatly, she recommends practicing gratitude, and leaning into joy.
When we get fixated on what we should be doing, and external expectations or approval, we can get caught up in the cycle of perfectionism. This can lead to shame and self-blame. To dare greatly, Brené suggests that self-compassion is key: being kinder and gentler to ourselves, as if we were advising someone we care about. Her phrase “I am good enough” should be every mama’s mantra! This section made me think of the Circle of Security approach to parenting, which talks about being “good enough” as a parent, and letting go of perfectionism. I’m still a work in progress, but those times I let go of what I “should” be doing as a mum and just connect with my kids are often some of the easiest, most fulfilling moments.
Another glass of wine, that whole block of chocolate, or binge watching your favourite streaming service – I don’t know a mum who doesn’t need to tune out sometimes to have a break from the physical and mental load we carry. Some of this is healthy – we all need some downtime – but often this can come at a cost of less time to connect with our partners, deal directly with our own needs, or be mindful about the impacts of these numbing behaviours on our lives and those of our families. The Daring Greatly* strategies are threefold: learning to actually feel our feelings; staying mindful about numbing behaviours; and leaning into the discomfort of hard feelings. Here is Brené on numbing:
Before I undertook this research, my question was “what’s the quickest way to make these feelings go away?” Today my question is “What are these feelings and where did they come from?” Inevitably, the answers are that I’m not feeling connected enough to Steve [her husband] or the kids, and that this comes from (take your pick) not sleeping enough, not playing enough, working too much, or trying to run from vulnerability.
Vulnerability in the workplace
Brené defines a leader as “anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes”. She talks about the need for vulnerably before you can get to innovation – because having a new idea and taking a risk means exposing yourself to potential shaming (ridicule, failure). And she notes that shame is rife in so many workplaces, manifesting as blame, gossip, harassment, and general cynicism about any change.
If we want to create a workplace revolution (and you’re here, so let’s assume you do!), we need to be willing to talk openly about some hard things, like the often invisible frustration of part time mums with ambition who can’t see a way to progress their careers. This struck me as I struggle with perfectionism in my own leadership at work:
If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, you aren’t reaching your full potential.
Giving and receiving feedback and being open that we are not perfect is a way to start to change our workplaces to become more open, less fearful, and more supportive environments for working mums – and for everyone. The fact that it’s meant to feel as uncomfortable as it sometimes does to be open about our ambition, push for change and challenge norms at work? Even more incentive to keep building a mama leader revolution!
Take this topic further:
- Read Daring Greatly* and put some of these insights into action in your life, or better still, start a Mama Leadership Book Group, and discuss some of these pivotal books with your friends
- Want to gain clarity around your values and move towards a wholehearted life? Want to make changes to your habits that hold you back in this regard (numbing habits)? Our affordable Design Design Your Perfect Week program is designed to help you do this. Only $29 for the self-guided program, and $249 with two one-one-one accountability coaching sessions to help you implement changes in your life to move towards more wholehearted living that is aligned with your own personal values and ambitions. This process is especially important if you are struggling with overwhelm.
- Ready to commit to daring greatly in your work in 2018? Our Leadership Foundations Coaching Program is currently taking bookings for the next program beginning in late January 2018. If you book in before December 2017, the three month program is only $330.
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